Select Group Charged With Solving Most Complex Crimes
The five detectives who make up the Columbus Division of Police's Cold Case squad are working to solve 600 unsolved slayings, including many that are decades old.
"By the time we get (a case), an experienced homicide detective has already investigated the case and hadn't solved it yet," said Columbus police Sgt. Eric Pilya, who heads the unit.
Pilya told 10TV's Jerry Revish that the worst cases his unit deals with is when they are 100 percent sure who their suspect is but they don't have enough evidence to prove it.
There are hundreds of boxes of all the old paperwork that detectives have used during their investigations. Detective Dana Farbacher showed nine boxes that were all related to a 1983 case where two workers were stabbed to death at Riverside Methodist Hospital.
"Often, the older the case, the harder it can be to solve," Farbacher said.
The cold cases often present problems because many of the people connected to the crimes have moved away or died.
"It makes it hard to find the people to re-interview or talk to out of these cases," Pilya said.
In some cases, there is not enough evidence. In other cases, there are no witnesses or the witnesses are too scared to talk.
Pilya said that his detectives often suggest meeting potential witnesses away from their homes or even talking to them over the phone.
Farbacher said that the telephone is the biggest crime fighting tool in the world. He calls witnesses when he can find them to see if they are willing to talk with the passage of time and a change in circumstances.
"Relationships change over time and a lot of that is how we get information on these cases," Pilya said.
Over time, crime scenes can also change. On Feb. 8, 2000, someone lured Ohio State University senior Charles Ballard to the basement of his campus-area apartment and shot him. A roommate found Ballard's body. Half of it was burned.
Police said that someone flipped the electrical breaker so that the lights in his apartment went out. When Ballard went to the basement to check, his killer was waiting.
Even though the building was renovated and there are new neighbors, Farbacher said he finds it useful to examine old crime scenes with new eyes to see if something was missed.
He also pours through old evidence and sends some to the police crime laboratory.
Jami St. Clair, who manages the division's crime lab, said her unit conducts tests for DNA, firearms and controlled substances.
Some of the cases pre-date DNA analysis so samples that were never tested now can be checked and possibly matched to a suspect.
Advances in technology mean that much smaller samples can help detectives catch a killer.
"They have been trained in what the forensics can do for them now that they couldn't do when the crime first occurred," St. Clair said.
While Farbacher relies on scientists for help, he also does not skip the basics. It helped him find the killer of Sharif Sharif, who was found shot in 2004. Farbacher said that detectives had a good idea that Rasi Robinson committed the slaying but there was no conclusive evidence.
Farbacher showed Revish the materials used to build the case. Police collected shell casings the night of the shooting, but no gun. He said he learned that the shell casings never were entered into a national database.
"When I submitted those items of evidence, we got a match on a gun in Washington, D.C.," Farbacher said.
The crime lab's test firing of the gun matched the weapon to the bullets that killed Sharif. The gun was stolen in Columbus.
"The burglary victim was a woman who knew the suspect, Robinson," Farbacher said. "In fact, she said, Hey, when the gun was stolen, he had access to my apartment,' and she had filed a police report."
Robinson was already locked up on a federal charge, Revish reported.
"The people who are our witnesses now became more talkative," Farbacher said. "They felt, we're safer. He's off the street. We're willing to cooperate more. They began to give us a little more information. It was a combination enough that when time came for trial, he decided to take a plea instead."
The case was closed, but for those who have lost loved ones, the team knows that there is no closure.
"It's never really closure when you've lost somebody," Pilya said. "There's some peace of mind in knowing that whoever did that crime; we now know who it is and they're going to be prosecuted."
Even when a case is closed, detectives know that hundreds more await their help. For them, it's a personal mission to bring justice to unfinished lives buried in files.
"You may have a case that you haven't solved and it's all you think about," Pilya said. "When you're with your other detective friends, that's all you talk about. You know, there are some cases that really get to detectives."
Pilya explained one retired detective with whom he was acquainted who carried the victim's driver's licenses in his wallet for years because it still bothered him that he never solved those cases.
"We're brick layers," Farbacher said. "It's one brick at a time. And what we have to do is keeping putting those bricks together until we have a wall."
The detectives don't give up.
"Once we have a solid match, it's kind of like, we've got ya," Pilya said.
2000 ‘Hollywood Hit’ Slaying Still Baffles Police
SPECIAL SECTION: CrimeTracker 10
On Thursday, 10TV News will profile central Ohio cold cases in each newscast, beginning at 5 a.m. Central Ohio Crime Stoppers will take viewer calls and tips from 5 a.m. through 11:30 p.m.